AUGUSTA, Maine — The LePage administration’s latest budget proposals to eliminate MaineCare coverage for 28,000 people, cut welfare benefits for some families and slash hundreds of state government jobs is expected to draw sizable crowds to the State House on Wednesday.
Unveiled last week, the package of budget alterations intended to plug a new, $164 million hole has elicited both cheers and jeers, sometimes from the same groups.
The state employees union has applauded Gov. Paul LePage for dropping an earlier proposal that would have required public workers who retire early to pay 100 percent of their health insurance costs until age 65. But the “change package” would eliminate more than 250 state positions, most of which are now vacant, and keeps proposed hikes in the amount employees and retirees pay into their pension system.
Likewise, providers of substance abuse treatment were pleased the LePage administration has re-allocated $2.5 million that would allow many centers — but not all — to remain open.
But they are raising alarms about a new proposal to eliminate MaineCare funding for roughly 16,000 low-income adults without children, some of whom require substance abuse or mental health counseling to remain active members of society.
Pat Kimball, executive director of Wellspring, a residential substance abuse program in Bangor, said while restoration of the $2.5 million was good news, she hopes lawmakers and the administration will minimize other cuts to this group living well below the poverty line.
“We are a whole lot cheaper than jail,” Kimball said. “We are cheaper than jail and the emergency room.”
The elimination of MaineCare eligibility for childless adults as well as other significant policy changes to Maine’s welfare programs likely will be a popular topic Wednesday as the budget-writing Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee takes up LePage’s proposed changes beginning at 1 p.m.
In total, the LePage administration is proposing to eliminate MaineCare benefits for roughly 28,000 adults. An estimated 12,000 parents who earn between 133 percent and 150 percent of the federal poverty level would no longer be eligible for MaineCare benefits as of January, saving the state $6 million next year and $12 million in 2013.
Eliminating MaineCare eligibility for the 16,000 currently eligible childless adults will save the state $11 million in 2012 and $22.5 million in 2013.
LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett pointed out that Maine is one of only 15 states that currently offer Medicaid services to adults who do not have children, and dropping that group from coverage will not violate any federal rules.
“Those individuals have no dependents in the home, are not pregnant and are not disabled,” Bennett said.
The proposal would freeze enrollment in MaineCare for childless adults beginning in July and then end participation in January, providing affected individuals time to seek other coverage, Bennett said.
In the meantime, Bennett said the governor is supporting a health insurance overhaul bill, LD 1333, that aims to lower insurance costs. That bill, which could receive final passage this week, has become a partisan issue, however.
“We are trying to create more options for people,” Bennett said. “We want to lower those premiums so more people can afford [coverage].”
Groups that advocate for Maine’s lower-income residents see the governor’s budget proposals differently, however.
“You are looking at very poor individuals who will have no other means for health care services,” said Sara Gagne-Holmes, executive director of the Maine Equal Justice Partners, a nonprofit advocacy group.
In addition to MaineCare changes, the administration has proposed language stating that anyone who is eligible for federal help through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, or TANF, would be ineligible for general assistance, or welfare, from the state or municipalities.
Gagne-Holmes said recent figures from the Department of Health and Human Services show that nearly 86 percent of general assistance vouchers were used for housing or housing-related needs.
The administration’s proposal could deny some families the last-minute help they need to keep from becoming homeless, Gagne-Holmes said. Those changes to welfare and MaineCare come at a time when the administration is proposing tax cuts, she said.
“It seems this is not really a shared responsibility,” she said. “If the state can afford to provide $200 million in tax cuts, the state can provide health care to some of the poorest individuals.”
Those tax cut proposals are likely to find strong support in the GOP-controlled Legislature, however.
As part of his budget change package, LePage has offered several suggested alterations to his original tax cut plan, opting instead to largely embrace a plan endorsed by the Republican members of the Taxation Committee.
That plan would lower Maine’s top income tax rate from 8.5 percent to 7.95 percent beginning in 2013. LePage has also embraced a committee proposal to eliminate the fuel tax on commercial fishermen in the Gulf of Maine and taxes on meals served in retirement homes.
“It is providing about $200 million in tax cuts to help create jobs and to put more money in people’s pockets,” Bennett said.
More controversially, LePage and the Taxation Committee want to double the current exemption from the so-called “death tax” to cover estates worth up to $2 million.
The governor’s proposed budget changes also include:
- Allowing state agencies to re-hire retired employees but only at 75 percent of the base salary for the position.
- Eliminating public campaign financing for gubernatorial candidates.
- Creation of an Office of Communications where public relations, media relations and legislative relations will be handled centrally for all departments.
- Changing the calculation rate for a child care subsidy for low-income, working parents.